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Things that Didn't Suck about 2016

This has been a hard year for just about everyone. It certainly has been for me, not only because of the election and all the celebrity deaths (Prince is the one that hit the hardest for me), but also because of a number of things that happened in my life, especially getting laid off in February.

Every time I go on Twitter, I see people talking about what a shitty year it's been. No argument from me, but I thought it would be worth my while to remind myself of some things that didn't suck this year. So here goes.

My writing retreat

Shortly after being laid off in February, I booked a couple of nights in a tiny house in New Hampshire through Getaway. I went with my dog to New Hampshire to this tiny house in order to really work on earnest on Shelter in Place, my novel about kids in a lockdown. I had about ten pages before I went up there. I think I wrote about 30 more in the two days I was away, so that when I got back, I'd gone from having what was essentially an idea for a novel to a novel in progress.

There was no wifi, and I had about one bar of 3G, so I could text home and check email if the wind was right, but basically I was cut off from everything that usually distracts me from writing. It was glorious. I was definitely ready to come home at the end of it (and the dog, it must be said, got bored), but it was probably the best thing I've ever done for my writing, and it gave me a boost when I really needed one.

No on 2

Here in Massachusetts, there was a ballot initiative backed by tons of out of state money that would have allowed for essentially unchecked expansion of charter schools, which would have killed public education in Massachusetts, or at least in the lower-income towns where rich people decide charter schools should be located. I have many thoughts about how the measure was defeated that I think can be helpful in resisting all kinds of things that must be resisted in the coming years, but that's a whole post in itself. For now, I'll say that a coalition of ordinary people managed to resist a radical measure that was backed by huge amounts of money. Though the tens of millions that the hedge fund guys spent trying to kill public education was probably pocket change to those guys, I was happy to see them lose it, and, more importantly, I was happy to see ordinary people beat big money. It was hard to celebrate the victory at the time given the shitshow at the top of the ticket, but it meant a lot to me. I did very little, but more than I've ever done before in electoral politics, and I really appreciate the people who worked tirelessly on this.

The New BPL

The renovations at the Boston Public Library's main branch in Copley Square were completed this year, and the result is a beautiful public space packed with great places to work. Whoever did the design managed to overcome the tomb-like design of the original building to create a huge open space filled with light. I went there to work several times this year. It's beautiful and free and there are outlets everywhere and you don't even need to buy a coffee to justify taking up space because the space is already yours. (though you can buy coffee across the courtyard in the other building.)  So now the main branch of the BPL has the stunning old building, the beautiful courtyard, and a fantastic modern building. We are lucky to have it.

Old Friends

And I do mean old! This year I saw my high school friends Jamie, Eric, and Daniel when they came to town, (hadn't seen Jamie in over 20 years!) and this fall, Daniel, Eric, Betsy, Rick, Karl and I had a mini-reunion in Chicago. It is just amazingly soul-nourishing to have these people in my life, and despite the fact that we don't see each other as much as we'd like, we really are able to pick right up and have fun together as if no time at all has passed. People who knew you when you were 14 and somehow like you anyway are a treasure.

Make My Funk The P-Funk

My son and I went to see George Clinton at the House of Blues. It was one of the best concerts I've ever seen. This despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact?) that George himself doesn't do very much musically: he sang, or more accurately croaked, a song or two, but mostly he just ran around the stage, pointing at people taking solos and generally serving as bandleader/hype man. The musicians and singers who currently make up the P-Funk All Stars or whatever we're calling them are all top notch: Blackbird McKnight's "Maggot Brain" was pretty transcendent.  And there were so many of them! During a slow song, I thought the stage looked pretty empty, and it did: there were only ten people on it at the time. The overwhelming feeling of the night was that there was this fantastic party happening on stage that we were lucky enough to get to watch. It meant a lot to me to share this with my son, too, but that way lies maudlin writing.

Stranger Things and TV's Golden Age

I loved Stranger Things a lot.  80's Nostalgia: check! D&D geekery: check! Amazing performances from winning actors: check! (The presence of one dud in the cast didn't even ruin it for me.) Trans-dimensional horror: check! I felt like they made this show just for me, which made it doubly thrilling that it was a hit. Usually things that feel tailor-made for me disappear quickly or are relegated to cult status. So, yeah, great show. But the thing is, there are more good TV shows out there right now than I have time to watch. The talent pool in Hollywood seems to be flocking to TV, perhaps because TV allows them to do more interesting things. When I saw Rogue One, I saw like 8 trailers beforehand, and I couldn't believe how hacky all the movies looked. Michael Bay-style explosions and sub-Two Broke Girls-level comedies were all that were on offer. I used to go to the movies and add movies to my must-see list based on trailers, but now I think there's way too much good TV to catch up on for me to waste my time seeing shitty movies. Sorry about the movies, but wow is there some great stuff on TV right now. Great TV used to be an oxymoron, and then it was a rarity. Now it's not all that rare. We're living in the golden age of this art form, which is exciting.

Your Turn to Bring the Light

We are entering what may be very dark times, which makes it doubly hard to lose so many people who brought light into our lives. So it's really our turn to bring the light. You are not a musical genius like Prince, and you may not be a fearless badass like Carrie Fisher, but you've got something to give. Something that other people are going to need pretty desperately.  A lot of our heroes are gone, so it's up to us to bring the light in whatever way we can. Or maybe to be heroes just for one day.

 


Leaving Kidlit Twitter, or Why I Unfollowed You

I've recently unfollowed some lovely people on Twitter. I'd like to explain why.

I am opting out of kidlit Twitter.

I believe that people who anger us are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. I also believe in the freedom to read.

These are bedrock values to me, and kidlit Twitter does not share them.  I've tried to be silent when I see them violated, but it's nearly impossible for me to do so, and it's become clear to me that my speaking up is pointless.

I am aware of the concept of tone policing. What it has come to mean is that there is no such thing as a disproportionate response. So if someone does something dumb or offensive, you should immediately denounce them in the strongest terms possible. To suggest that someone who has inadvertently hurt your feelings deserves whatever vitriol you can muster just feels bizarre to me. I wonder why, if there is no such thing as a disproportionate verbal response, we stop there. Aren't acts of violence justified against people who say offensive things? I've seen people suggest that language is violence. Surely this deserves to be met with actual physical violence. Isn't cutting this option off just a way that the powerful control the powerless? 

An aside about power: if you have tons of followers on Twitter and you can mobilize them all to mob someone's mentions and say terrible things about them, you have power, no matter how you identify. Remember when Trump supporters did this to a kidlit author? It was rightly denounced as bullying. Yet when kidlit Twitter does this to one of its own, it's apparently justice.  The folks who led the charge will stand triumphant over the inactive or private Twitter account of the offender and proclaim victory.

So: is mobbing someone into silence bullying, or isn't it?

 I've said and done my share of offensive and stupid things in my life. I was and am a work in progress, and I've stumbled a lot. My friend Betsy recently told me about some appallingly misogynistic things I said in high school. I had completely forgotten ever saying these things, and I was ashamed. (Note to men who were not popular with the ladies in high school: you may want to check in with your female friends from that era to find out what you were actually like. This may cause you to revise your "I was just a nice guy who was ignored by girls who liked assholes" narrative.)

Maybe you've never said anything dumb or offensive. Maybe you've never hurt anyone's feelings intentionally or unintentionally. But I have, and it's hard for me to condemn people as less than me because they have too. This doesn't mean ignoring or enabling such things. But it means remembering that the person who did them is, like me, a flawed human with the capacity to learn. To assume otherwise is deny their humanity.

When someone spots something hurtful or harmful in a book, the conversation jumps quickly to "this publisher should pull the book." In other words, if I deem something offensive, no one should have the ability to read it.  "This book sucks" is legitimate criticism. "Pull the book" is not. I believe that literature, and indeed all art, has to have the freedom to be offensive, stupid, and dangerous.

Speak gets challenged in a single school district, and we spring into action to battle censorship even though anyone can still find and read the book. When We Was Fierce is apparently racist, and thanks to kidlit Twitter, the publisher pulled the book, it's in legal limbo, and no one can read it. Maybe it's as terrible as everyone says. I'd like to be able to make that decision for myself, but I can't.

Everyone who wants to ban a work of art believes they are doing the right thing. The people who challenge Speak legitimately believe that book poses a threat to their children, that it's so out of step with their values that it shouldn't be read. Kidlit Twitter is creating a playbook for how to censor literature, and if the forces of fascism are paying attention, they'll use the same playbook to censor something they believe is offensive to their values. They will rightly be able to point to kidlit Twitter's "successes" as precedent that when a group of people believes a book to be dangerous, nobody should be allowed to read it.

I have seen people say that they are acting on behalf of children, or fighting the good fight for diversity, or whatever, but the ginned-up nature of many of the controversies that define kidlit Twitter makes me suspect that something else is going on.  A six-month-old review in a journal very few people read is suddenly urgent? A book that's two months old with fewer than 20 Amazon reviews has already died on the vine. Why is it suddenly so dangerous that it must be censored? No, these controversies are about the exercise of power more than anything else. Which is to be expected when humans are involved, but the hypocrisy and sanctimony that attend this behavior really bother me.

Because the atmosphere of fear that prevails in the kidlit "community" right now is ultimately harmful to art. Writers will be afraid to take chances lest they get Twitter mobbed. Will agents and publishers take a chance on a book that addresses important issues but might be controversial? Or will they go for that series about the fairy princess assassin who can't choose between the fae prince she's destined for and the roguish human she's been assigned to kill? (Just came up with that. I should totally go into book packaging.)

Kidlit Twitter is a toxic place. It's bad for my emotional health.  It's bad to waste time on contrived controversy when the country is sliding into fascism and I need to figure out meaningful ways to resist. And it's bad for art to have the fear of an angry mob in your head all the time.

I'm posting this to Twitter so that people I unfollowed who I care about will see it, but I won't be discussing it there. I've also closed comments on this post. If you are a friend and want to talk to me about this, email or DM me. If you want to point out how wrong and evil I am, please do so without mobbing my mentions. You've already won: I won't be participating in any more online conversations about literature except to post reviews of books I've read on Goodreads.

I don't think I'll change anyone's mind with this, but, like I said, it's hard for me to shut up. But now I will. Goodbye and good luck.